The Tunnel

by klassman

Yesterday I met David. He is a masters swimmer who trains at the local pool. As we changed to go home, he told me that he swims three time a week and last fall, for his 50th birthday, he entered a triathlon.

But first, we must go back. Back to the introduction, it was made by Big Al and Alicia.

I first met Big Al close to 15 years ago. He was the friend of a friend. He snapped this photo. That is Alicia, his wife, as she prepared to do the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim with two of Big Al’s goofier friends — Dan being our mutual acquaintance and his friend going back to high school.


A rose between thorns. Alicia with Dan and myself in the very early ’00s.

We live near one another, have children in the same age ranges, ride together when it’s warm and run together when Big Al feels like going slow. Alicia was a standout collegiate swimmer and is still competitive.  She tolerates our antics and weekend excursions on two wheels.  Once, she even loaned me her mountain bike so Dana and I could go for a 50 mile trail ride.

So it was no surprise when I saw her on deck yesterday during my “big set” of 5x500m descending rest :15.  She scooted over to ask if I was done.  I  replied that I had done three of five 500s.  Then she and her masters coach asked me if I wanted to slide over to lane eight to swim with the guy all alone in the “fast lane.”  Evidentially, they claimed, he needed someone to push him.  Big Al even ran out of the locker room behind her to encourage me.  He complimented how fast the three 500s looked that I had already done.

They suckered me.  We made pleasant introductions.  David also lives in the neighborhood and with a gentle British accent he thanked me for joining him.  He suggested when we should leave for the first 200 meters together.  Moments later, we were off.  We started with 3×200 rest approximately :30.  The first was negative split, then positive split and finishing with all-out.  Number one was 1:24/1:16.  The next 200 started with a 1:18 before we eased up.  On both of these, we swam side by side and finished within a half a stroke of each other.  Perhaps, I had a little bit of a lead on my new friend during the first 200.  Then came the third 200 and it got rough.  At about 170 meters, I was trailing by a stroke and a half and then a piano landed on my shoulders.  He finished nearly 3/4 of a body length in front of me.  We did it in 2:39 and 2:40, respectively, and I was reeling.

After a 300 swim at 75 percent, we were due for 4×100 descending.  We went from a 1:32 to a 1:14.  Again, I may have had David by less than a half a stroke for the first three but during the fourth 100, I went from sparring partner to punching bag.  It was here that I entered the tunnel.

I’m sure people have different interpretations of the tunnel.  For me, as the perception of time slows so does cognitive function.  I cannot tell you the precise sequence or even if every step takes place each time I enter.  The tunnel is an old friend.  Each nook and cranny and scar on the gray walls is familiar terrain.  It is neither terrifying nor comforting; it is simply familiar.  When the walls close in, I know where I am and what I’m supposed to do.

I haven’t been there for a long time.  But I imagine it would be like driving the two lane roads in rural Henry County, Illinois where I grew up.  It doesn’t matter how much time away, going there is familiar.

In the tunnel, color bleeds away.  Peripheral vision narrows.  Sounds become thicker, lumbering into my consciousness.  Decisions are slowed.  Awareness of very fine details is, strangely, heightened.  Fancy medical types would call it hypoxia but I would not suggest that it is a tunnel that always goes down toward unconsciousness.  Sometimes it is uplifting and it is like a tunnel up toward a pure place, free of distraction and distilled.  It brings you a moment at its essence — as time slows.  How long one can drive on, pushing deeper through the irrational is unknown to me.  The tunnel is not just a place, as anaerobic stress takes its toll, it is also a process — as one tunnels into a new level of performance.

Trying to keep pace with David, sprinting like I haven’t sprinted in so very long, kicking hard enough that the percussion of the water could be heard and felt like a bass drum, I crossed the threshold and entered.  Oh how it hurt.  Lungs burned, legs went molten, shoulders screamed and my hands started to tingle as senses sharpened.  I couldn’t catch him and certainly wasn’t making a pass.  I wanted to stop and yet was unwilling to give up an inch.

It was an all-out middle-age version of a human drag race.  It was glorious.  Gasping poolside, I knew that I’d have to get back there again soon.